Prep continues for my Antarctic expedition. I'm leaving Thanksgiving Day for a two month trip to the Neptune Range of the Pensacola Mountains, guiding a small team of glaciologists and geologists who are working to determine the maximum elevation and ice coverage in the area during the last Glacial Maximum (about 10,000-15,000 years ago); the current melt rate of the glaciers in the range; and the actual flow rate of the Foundation Ice Stream, a "super-glacier" that flows from the interior to the Ronne Ice Shelf.
This trip is running through the US Antarctic Program, managed by the National Science Foundation, and as such we rely heavily on air support. When I leave on Thanksgiving evening I'll be flying commercially to Christchurch, New Zealand, where the program has an operations headquarters for McMurdo and South Pole Station (the third US station, Palmer, is accessed from Punta Arenas, Chile). In Christchurch we'll spend a few nights and a couple days adjusting to the time change and having cold-weather clothing issued, then step onto a ski-equipped C-130 for the 7-hour flight south. If we're lucky, we may get a ride on a C-117 jet instead that will cut the flight down to 4 hours. Either way, the flight is extremely weather-dependent, and people have been kept waiting in Christchurch.
In McMurdo, we have to spend a week getting packed. All of our field equipment - camping equipment, snowmobiles, food, etc - is issued from McMurdo, and the bulk of our specialized equipment, including an ice-penetrating radar to determine overall snow depth, is also being shipped down by air. A couple of people have to take a survival course, mandatory for all field parties. For the rest of the team, since we've been around this block already, we'll attend a briefing to reacquaint us with equipment, procedures, and policies.
When we're all set, we'll get on a C-130 again. Plans haven't been finalized, but it sounds like we're going to the South Pole Station first, then flying from the Pole to our field site.
Right now, we're hoping to spend 36 days in the field, stretched between two camps. Snowmobiles are our primary means of travel - dogs haven't been used in decades. Then we get picked up and flown back, spending only four or five days in McMurdo before returning to New Zealand.
In the Program's vocabulary, I'm the Field Safety Officer. In McMurdo my time will be spent in briefings with Field Ops and Air Ops, and a lot of equipment issue, organizing, and management. The six of us will also head out and spend a day working on crevasse rescue skills. In the field, I'll work with the glaciology team to help put out survey markers in the Foundation Ice Stream, which is heavily crevassed along its flow edges and will require a lot of foot travel to establish. But most of my time will be spend with the geologist, who uses a unique form of nuclear dating on glacial erratics - rocks that were picked up upstream, carried downstream withing the glacier, and then abandoned on a hillside when the glacier diminished in mass. So my main mission will be to climb with the geologist to the summit of as many suitable peaks as we can, and collect samples as we descend. We may collect two tons of samples by the end of the trip.
And I'm coming straight home this year - no vacation in New Zealand for me. Since I'm taking the AMGA Ski Mountain Guide Exam in April, I need to be skiing, not rock climbing. I'll save the New Zealand alpine trip for next year, when the whole team is heading back for a second season.
So I'll have internet access throughout the trip, except for the 5 or 6 weeks that we hope to be in the field. Of course I'm going to write about McMurdo and our field time, but I also hope to add short posts about packing, New Zealand, and the South Pole. Stay tuned, keep in touch, and stay in trouble!
Note on images: every single image in this post was taken off the internet by google-ing "us antarctic program" and "pensacola mountains antarctica".